You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
“It’s not normal for a young woman to be so obsessed with death. You shouldn’t be making up books, you should see a psychiatrist.” So says Giulia, the author’s host in Naples where she is seeking out yet another ill-fated architectural project, the dilapidated Villa Ebe. Fortunately for us, Charlotte Van den Broeck wasn’t to be deterred, hence Waagstukken(Bold Ventures), the first prose work by the prize-winning Belgian poet. Already a bestseller, it has now been published in English, translated from the Dutch by David McKay.
As made clear by its subtitle, the book comprises thirteen tales of architectural tragedy, more particularly thirteen works purportedly associated with architects who either committed suicide or are rumoured to have done so, at least in part a consequence of some failure of design. The number is no coincidence – the author concedes it is “a bit of a bad joke.”
In each chapter, Charlotte Van den Broeck sets out to explore the circumstances of the architect’s death and tries to link this back to the way in which their professional reputation was in some way damaged by the fate of their work. With a poet’s sensibility, Van den Broeck focuses on the relationship between the creator and their creation, in this case highly visible, functional, often monumental work vulnerable to public scrutiny. As she says, “architects who fail in public space fail in plain sight.”
The architectural examples chosen range from the 17th century to the present day, mainly in Europe but also in the US, mostly buildings but extending also to a golf course and a sculpture garden. They include a technically-flawed, slowly sinking, municipal swimming pool in the author’s hometown of Turnhout (the trigger for her interest in the topic), the Vienna State Opera House, (vilified by critics even before it was completed thanks to the adjacent ring road being constructed higher than planned, giving it a ‘sunken’ look and diminishing the grandeur required of its status), and the truly tragic Knickerbocker Theatre in Washington DC- the roof of which collapsed in heavy snow killing ninety five people and injuring hundreds more.
The author states early on that her goal was “to rehabilitate those architects … to do something to counter the pointlessness of their despair, the finality of their suicide.” This is a bold venture in itself but one Van den Broeck sets out to do with gusto, taking three years of study and travel to create a narrative that meanders pleasurably through a mixture of travelogue, history, biography, anecdotes and fictional reconstruction (as the author notes “facts don’t always sound as credible as fiction”). Through this thoughtfully entertaining, psycho-geographic journey she explores and illuminates her idiosyncratic topic with intelligence and no little humour; there is more than a touch of whimsy in the storytelling alongside genuine tragedy. Along the way, we encounter an array of colourful characters and quirky organisations such as Madame Dupont, president of the European Association for Twisted Towers who is quick to enquire whether the author has the good fortune to live near a twisted church tower. Then there are three men named Koen in Ostend, a writer, a painter and an architect, who Van den Broeck cleverly conflates into a single voice to save having to distinguish between them. And Mafalzon, the bookbinder of Valetta who, wearing a three piece suit, a fisherman’s cap and sandals, stands outside the National Library of Malta protesting about its state of decay, holding a sign proclaiming ‘Free the Library of wood-eating demons!’
What becomes quickly apparent, however, is that the link between architectural failure and suicide is not always apparent, and in some cases is brazenly non-existent. Not until the third chapter do we find evidence that the architect really did commit suicide and even then it seems more to do with grief following the death of his lover than any architectural failure. Other cases of suicide appear linked to the architect’s professional disappointment but often alongside other factors such as penury, unhappy relationships and long-term mental health issues.
There is certainly a sense of mischief in these reimagined, improvised histories. This might be considered problematic, but while the unfolding narrative does not bear out the book’s claim that “the buildings were fatal to their architects,” we are instead drawn into a different, even more beguiling story, that of a writer grappling with the meaning of her own journey. In trying to make sense of the fragments she has collected, Van den Broeck seeks to make something that is more than the sum of disparate incomplete parts, a story of her own relationship with creativity, failure and suicide.
This subtle shift is evident in the gradual unfolding of the author’s own journey alongside the architects’ stories themselves. Interesting and entertaining as those stories may be, it is her commentary, and particularly her doubts about the task she has set herself that provides the metanarrative that drives the reader on. Half way through the book, her doubts manifest in a letter to her partner, Wouter. On a cold winter’s day in Vienna, she writes: “I don’t know if there’s any point to all this. The snow, the isolation, the distance. The distance between you and me. Another dead architect.” Later in the letter, forced to confront her repeated inability to link the artist’s suicide with professional failure, she asks pointedly: “what am I really trying to prove?”
By the time she reaches her ninth case study, Van den Broeck admits that “in most cases so far, I’ve been confronted with buildings that show no physical sign of the alleged failure, and the tale of the builder’s suicide usually turns out to be more or less myth.” By the end of chapter ten, ostensibly commenting on a painting in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery, the author tellingly concludes that “the longer I look, the more it dawns on me that there is no solution, no narrative.”
Her sense of failure becomes further apparent when, barred from the exclusive Pine Valley Golf Club in New Jersey by dint of gender and a two and a half meter high electric fence, the author considers scaling the barrier to at least glimpse the hallowed greens and inform her story about George Crump, the course’s designer. She demurs, observing “what do any of these architects have to gain at this late stage, from a ‘narrative context’?”
By the penultimate chapter, despite recounting the most tragic of all the stories, that of Reginald Gear’s Knickerbocker Theatre in Washington, possibly the one where the causal relationship between architectural failure and the architect’s suicide is clearest, the despairing author nevertheless concludes that “it makes so much more sense to leave all these stories untold, to wipe the whole thing blank.” Fortunately for us she chooses not to and we are treated to a final story that if not exactly redemptive, nevertheless provides a somewhat surreal but satisfyingly poetic ending.
The architecture of Van den Broeck’s book is impressively multi-layered, not just by combining history, observation, scholarship and personal reflections on buildings and their builders, but in overlaying this with her own quest to write a book while riddled with self-doubt and fear of failure. In her letter to Wouter, in answer to her own question about what she is trying to prove, Van den Broeck struggles to find the right word: “The word ’explanation’ suddenly seems dangerous, and miles away from ‘understanding’, or from that other word I sometimes say to you when you ask yet again why I have to write this particular book; ‘compassion’.. It is this compassion for her architects and their ambitions that ultimately wins through and gives the book its soul.
Bold Ventures is a welcome addition to a growing area of literary non-fiction that combines personal reflection, cultural history and philosophical musing. Like Jennifer Lucy Allen’s The Foghorn’s Lament, the elaboration of a niche interest (and you cannot get much more niche than the sound of foghorns or the suicide of architects) unearths a rich vein of themed stories. Like Allen, Van den Broeck’s book originates from postgraduate research, which may explain the impressive array of scholarly references ranging from Spinoza to Hegel and Darwin. There is even a connection through the suicide of the Belgian architect Gaston Eysselinck who chooses the eerie sound of the Ostend foghorn as the signal to end his own life.
The outcome of Van den Broeck’s bold venture is enjoyable and enlightening and provides strong testimony to the strength of her compassion for her subject. Waagstukken can also be translated as “wagers,” or “risks,” and the author herself shares the risks taken by her architects in putting her work “in plain sight;” she deserves the compassion of her readers for doing so. There is more traveling than arriving in this book, and while a destination may prove elusive, the journey is everything. Giulia was wrong, making up books is much better than seeing a psychiatrist.
By Charlotte Van den Broeck
Translated by David Mckay
Other press, 304 pages
Jack Lethbridge is a writer of short stories and fictiones. His work has been short and long listed for the Fish Flash Fiction and Fish Short Story prizes, New Writer Prose and Poetry Prizes, Flash 500, Words with JAM and has been selected for performance at Story Fridays, Bath and for recording by A Word in Your Ear. His stories have been published in Litro, the Fish Anthology 2011 and in Kissing Frankenstein and Other Stories, Flash Fiction South West, 2012. A collection of his stories, Neil Armstrong in North Somerset (and more than 50 other short tales) was published by Troubador, 2017. A scientist by background, he contributed The Other Lab column to Null Hypothesis: The Journal of Unlikely Science. Jack studied creative writing at the University of Bristol and has a particular interest in the relationship between creativity and place and exploring the hazy boundaries of fiction and non-fiction. When not writing he likes to wander aimlessly around his home city of Bristol, UK.